“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art”: DOWNTOWN 81 as Graffiti

|Brad Stiffler|

There is undoubtedly a lot of graffiti in Downtown 81. Featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat just before he began his meteoric ascent in the world of galleries and museums, the film captures the height of his public graffiti-writing period with numerous scenes of him spray painting walls and defacing cars (“I was part of the landscape, I’m an artist”). Within the first fifteen minutes, Basquiat runs into Fab Five Freddy (later of Yo!: MTV Raps fame) and Lee Quiñones (who later appeared in Wild Style) painting a “legal” mural (“I’m a tax payer, I can paint anywhere I want”). Beyond these direct depictions of graffiti writing, the background is filled with the stuff. Filmed on location in Manhattan in 1980, there is no shortage of tags, stencils, elaborate murals, and artistically defaced property (“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art… neon literature”).

There are also some slightly less obvious forms of graffiti in the film. In a perhaps-too-symbolic scene, Basquiat takes a sharpie to a book of Man Ray photographs in a rich patron’s swanky apartment, vandalizing a stand-in for the institutional art world as if it were just another concrete wall holding up a bank or a police station. Or, thinking more abstractly, Basquiat and his loose crew of artists, musicians, and freaks represent a kind of cultural graffiti, marring the streets of a metropolis built for the stuffed suits of Wall St., the mass culture hucksters of Times Square, and the elite denizens of the art world, represented by the imposing background image of the Guggenheim in the opening sequence. By offering a distinctly racialized vision of NYC, where black, Latinx, and other marginalized artists were central actors in a subcultural scene that wasn’t striving for mainstream success or museum prestige, the film leaves its mark on the shining image of America’s cultural capital (“I wanted to paint the town red, paint the town black”).  

But is the film itself a kind of graffiti? Does it capture the essence of this mode of criminal art-making in its form? Does it offer an example of cinema as graffiti? As the examples above demonstrate, it certainly holds out the promise that we might experience something of the sort. And if the sounds made from stolen samples played over looped break beats in some of the early hip hop featured in the film, or the No Wave stylings of DNA that tried to deconstruct rock music, might be said to constitute a kind of musical or sonic graffiti, why shouldn’t we expect the filmmaking to capture the same spirit? Or if TV Party, the riotous early cable access program where Basquiat, writer Glenn O’Brien, co-star Debbie Harry, and numerous others in the film worked together before, could be said to have defaced television with its conflict-filled call-in sessions and on-air pot smoking, might we reasonably expect this film to find a uniquely cinematic form of disruptive expression?

I won’t try to evaluate its success or failure in that project here. Go and see it and decide for yourself. I will, though, leave you with one more thought on the topic. Near the middle of the film, Basquiat happens across a piece of his own graffiti, massive black letters on a brick wall: WHICH ONE OF THE FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE?    ⃤TELEVISION ⃤THE CHURCH ⃤SAMO ⃤MCDONALDS. He steps back and takes a photograph of it (“I’ve made my mark in the world”). The potentially interactive form of the piece holds out the real promise of graffiti: the world isn’t built for you but you can leave your mark. By taking a picture of it from afar, Basquiat defuses it, turning it into an image to be consumed or enjoyed rather than a provocation to go out and find your own way to deface the world. As a “document” and set of images attempting to capture the unique avant-garde constellation of street art, early hip hop, punk/post-punk, video art, community media, and political discontent of the Downtown scene, I worry the film (especially when viewed forty years later) might be more like that photograph than the graffiti on the wall.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

A brand new 35mm print of Downtown 81 screens at the Trylon from Friday, February to Sunday, February 23. Purchase tickets and learn more at trylon.org.

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